Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Love as retribution

Do you have someone in your life whose mission seems to be to torment you?

There is a person like that in my life.

I have spent hundreds of hours trying to determine what I said or did that made this person decide to be my enemy and an equal number attempting to build a stronger, healthier relationship.

Inevitably, just as it seems we are succeeding, just as I feel we have turned that corner toward mutual respect, even affection, she attacks with a vengefulness that takes my breath and my equilibrium.

Perhaps it is my naivete, but each time I am stunned anew.

And each time, I respond at gut level, whether I choose to show it or not, with anger and a bitter desire for retribution.

Have you experienced something like this in your life?

How do such events, and the emotional responses they trigger, fit with your desire to create a peaceful world?

When I experience that bitterness, that longing to place a curse on the head of the woman who chooses to be my enemy, I feel like a hypocrite.

In those moments, I do not want to find peace. I want to use my intellect and the force of my being to cause her the harm she has caused me.

Then I begin to understand the impulse for war.

So again I pray, as so many times before:

Give me the love I do not feel for this woman. Soften my heart that I may want to love her, that I see her as you do, a child of all that is good and holy, a child beloved.
Sometimes my bitterness is too great and I ask for helper spirits to stand between me and her, to shield us each from the pain and suffering we may wish upon each other, to shower us both with love.

Surprisingly, these prayers work, though I may have to sacrifice my anger and desire for revenge again and again.

Each time I ask for love--and in absence of a sincere desire to love--ask to want to love, I am softened. When I am softened, the situation diffuses, if only that I regain a sense of calm and peace in my own heart.

Sometimes--not every time--but sometimes, she softens too. Once or twice, she has come to me later and apologized, an amazing admission for a proud woman.

In her post What More is there to Say?, Wanda Tucker quotes Goethe:
If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.
This is the person I want to be.

I am not alone. More and more people are exploring ways to respond to personal violence with peace.

In her post, wisdom-girl, Michelle O'Neil suggests we thank the people with whom we have grievances and give "up the victim mentality completely."

There are times I am indeed grateful to the woman who torments me, for she has challenged all my beliefs and revealed to me just how deeply my anger can cut.

She is a reminder of the reasons peace must always start within my own heart. Her hatred forces me to confront my political and spiritual beliefs on a visceral level.

It is easy to be at peace in meditation, in spiritual practice alone and with others. It is something altogether different when cut by another, whether through malice or thoughtlessness.

So I propose, after much experience with the phenonema, love as retribution. Try it. Let me know how it works for you. It can't hurt.


  1. Recently, I had a similar interaction with someone. I found myself measuring every word I was about to say, playing through her possible responses in my head, realizing that whatever I said, she would twist the meaning to be negative even though I intended to be supportive.

    I felt defensive and misunderstood. Mostly, I wanted the pain to stop. Mine and hers. Had I not known that I was not the only one who had this kind of experience with her, it would have been far more crazy making than it already was. So I stopped. I stopped saying anything because even my attempts to soothe troubled waters had the effect of pouring gasoline on a fire. I was so saddened by this. I felt powerless in the situation; yet my ability to make a difference came from within myself.

    I thought of all kinds of things to say. I wanted to strike back, but only for a moment. Because I know how it feels to be on the receiving end of verbal retribution, I didn't want to pass that on.

    Apparently, I have lived many lives as a Samurai (or something). Somewhere along the line, I learned not to strike in anger with a desire for retribution or vengeance. In this lifetime, whenever I have struck out in anger, I regretted it. Unfortunately, my worthy adversary doesn't live by the same code. (The other friend who had a "situation" with this person said she admitted that her words were designed to be hurtful. Ouch.)

    You said, "Inevitably, just as it seems we are succeeding, just as I feel we have turned that corner toward mutual respect, even affection, she attacks with a vengefulness that takes my breath and my equilibrium." What I understand is that people who operate in this manner strike out precisely because we get close.

    They have been terribly (sometimes brutally) wounded. When someone gets close to them, it brings up the unresolved woundedness from their early life and they take it out on the person in the present moment. They get triggered and afraid. They lash out and act as if the person in present day is perpetrating the same kind of abuse they knew in their early life. To them, in that moment, their feelings are the only reality and they cannot--will not listen to another perspective. Once that passes, the tendency is to go into shame. Sometimes, from that place, they can see their extreme behavior and can apologize; but the awareness does not give them the ability to change the behavior. The next time someone is close enough to trigger them, they lash out again.

    Years ago a big block-headed (that's descriptive, not judgmental) dog got hit by a car in front of my house. He had a gash and deep bruise on his cheek, but seemed fine otherwise. I wanted to help him. He couldn't let me get close and caused himself more pain by trying to squeeze through a fence to get away. The most loving thing I could do was stop. Just let him be.

    People who have the kind of behavior your adversary and mine display are deeply wounded. They tend to act out precisely because we get too close for their comfort and safety. What is important for you and me to recognize is it's not personal. It is not about us. And that's tough when it feels so intensely personal in the moment.

    I spent the next several days wanting to explain myself to our mutual friends so they could hear my side of the story. Then I came to a place where I could let it go. It doesn't matter. The ones who know me will know. The ones who love me will know. If they "choose her side," so be it. We all need friends and the most loving thing I can do is let it be.

  2. Wanda,

    Thank you for taking time to share your wisdom and your experience. You are absolutely on target. This person indeed acts from a place of deep woundedness.

    What had not occurred to me before is that the closeness we almost achieve threatens her. Thank you for that insight, and for reminding of the importance of letting go.

    You say, "What is important for you and me to recognize is it's not personal. It's not about us. And that's tough when it feels so intensely personal in the moment."

    Yes, it does. So what's the worst that can happen if we let go anyway. Let go of anger, of vengeance, even the desire to mend. This is not about me, but about the other's blinding pain. Let her be.

    I love that. It is love in action. Pema Chadron counsels us to start where we are. Why shouldn't we let our adversaries be who they are and where they are? Accept them as they are?

    You know, it is easy to feel compassion for someone suffering from cancer or the infirmities of an aging body.

    You, Wanda, have shown me a path, long sought, to compassion for the individual who strikes with calculated malice.

    We must find love in our hearts for these individuals too. Goodness knows, we have been them at some time.

    I bow to you in deepest gratitude, Wanda.



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